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Rice and food security in Asia

More than 90% of rice is produced and consumed in Asia. In terms of food consumption, what distinguishes Asia from the rest of the world is its great dependency on rice: it is the basic staple for the majority of the population, including the region’s 560 million poor. Other regions rely more heavily on other cereals.

Indeed, as a poor person’s food, rice is a sensitive topic in many Asian countries; governments can “make or break” themselves with the fall and rise of rice prices. In many of these countries, rice is deeply engraved in their rich culture and tradition. Asian countries also take immense pride in having a vibrant rice farming system, and the reaffirmation of many countries after the 2008 rice price crisis to revitalize the domestic rice sector and achieve food security through rice self-sufficiency is a good example of what rice means to many countries in the region.

The introduction of high-yielding varieties in the late 1960s, which marked the beginning of the Green Revolution, has more than tripled Asian rice production in the past four-plus decades, from 200 million t (paddy equivalent) in the early 1960s to more than 600 million t in 2010. This has been possible with the introduction of modern varieties in tandem with assured irrigation, subsidized inputs (such as fertilizer, fuel, and pesticide), and guaranteed prices. During this period, more than 1,000 modern varieties were released to farmers in Asian countries, with adoption going from 30% in 1970 to about 70% in 1990.

The success of the Green Revolution in the 1960s witnessed a steady rise in Asia’s per capita rice consumption from 85 kg in the early 1960s to nearly 100 kg by 2010; on the other hand, global per capita consumption rose from 50 to 65 kg during the same period. The rising per capita consumption in combination with the growing population resulted in a tripling of total Asian rice consumption during this period from 150 to 450 million t (milled rice equivalent).

In line with the rising rice consumption, per capita calorie intake also increased by more than 40% from 1,891 in 1960 to 2,706 in 2009. Similarly, life expectancy and infant mortality witnessed significant improvements during the post-Green Revolution era. Altthough the contribution of rice to total calorie intake dropped in Asia during this period (from 38% in 1970 to 29%  in 2009), it still accounts for 45–70% of the total calorie intake in many rice-consuming countries in the region, including, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and many other Asian countries.

Changing consumption patterns

asia1Since the early 1990s, strong economic growth in many Asian countries, particularly in China and India, halted the upward trend in Asian per capita rice consumption as consumers diversified their diet from rice to high-value foods such as meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Between 1992 and 2005, per capita rice consumption in Asia as a whole declined from 103 to 96 kg. Per capita rice consumption in India began to decline after the economic liberalization in the early 1990s. In China and India, per capita consumption declined by 10 and 8 kg, respectively, between 1992 and 2005. Nevertheless, total rice consumption in Asia has continued to rise on the back of population growth and the rise in per capita rice consumption in other Asian countries.

However, the declining trend in per capita rice consumption in large countries such as China, India, and Indonesia has been reversed in the last few years and per capita consumption has started rising again. This upswing contributed to the recent surge in total annual Asian rice consumption by 40 million t over 7 years. Household consumer expenditure data collected by India’s National Sample Survey Organization confirm the flattening in per capita consumption in recent years from the declining trend in the 1990s in all four regions of India.

In other Asian countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, per capita rice consumption remains strong across income groups in both urban and rural areas. National representative household consumption survey data collected between 2000 and 2010 from both the Philippines (Family Income and Expenditure Survey) and Bangladesh (Household Income and Expenditure Survey) confirm this trend. Even high-income groups in both rural and urban areas consume more rice with a rise in income. Unlike the Philippines and Bangladesh, per capita rice consumption is on a downward trend in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Future consumption trends

As we look ahead, income growth, urbanization, and other long-term social and economic transformations are likely to influence the composition of the future food basket. Normally, one would expect diversification away from rice to more high-value foods such as meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables in the diet as income rises. But, the diversification rate in many Asian countries will also be influenced by the extent of government interventions in price control and subsidized food grain distribution.

India is a good example, where the government has a new and elaborate food subsidy program to provide highly subsidized food grains (rice and wheat) for 65 million below-poverty-line households, including nearly free food grains to 20 million Antyodaya Anna Yojna households, the poorest of the poor households. Each of the 65 million households receives 35 kg of grains every month at 74–86% below the procurement cost. The above-poverty-line families are also given 15–35 kg of grain every month depending on availability at less subsidized prices. In 2011-12, the food subsidy bill amounted to nearly $14 billion.

Overall, it may be reasonable to assume that diversification away from rice will be slow in many Asian countries and the minimum threshold level of rice consumption for each country will be different.

In addition, 700 billion more people will have to be fed in the next 30 years, based on the United Nations’ 2010 population projections—the Asian population will reach nearly 5 billion by 2035 and 5.15 billion by 2050. If Asian per capita rice consumption follows the trend it has seen in the past two decades, total consumption will grow at the rate of population growth. Total consumption growth may even exceed population growth if the recent uptrend in per capita consumption in the “big three” countries (China, India, and Indonesia) continues.

The bottom-line message is that, if food diversification in Asia is slow and not widespread, it is almost certain that the total demand for rice in Asia will continue to rise. However, the opposite will be true and total Asian consumption may start declining if Asian countries follow a rapid diversification path. Global rice consumption will probably rise from 439 million t (milled rice) in 2010 to 555 million t in 2035 and Asia will account for 67% of the total increase, rising from 388 million t in 2010 to 465 million t in 2035.

Future supply prospects

In the first three decades of the Green Revolution, the higher productivity growth, more than 2% annually, provided incentives for farmers to bring additional area into rice production. Part of the area expansion has been possible because of greater cropping intensity through the adoption of short-duration varieties. A combination of productivity growth and area expansion provided the production growth needed to keep rice prices affordable and meet global needs. However, yield growth has slowed significantly, falling below 1% by the early 2000s but increasing again after 2005. The effect of the overall decline is evident with two food price spikes since 2007 and a steady rise in rice prices since 2001.  From 2001 to 2007, rice prices nearly doubled primarily because of the supply-demand imbalance. Between November 2007 and May 2008, the rice market witnessed the tripling of international rice prices. Although prices went down quickly after May 2008, they settled at a much higher level of $500–600 per ton vis-à-vis $300–400 before the crisis.

The current rice area is at an all-time high at around 160 million ha compared with 120 million ha in the early 1960s. Further expansion of rice area in the future is not a viable option for most Asian rice-growing countries, where additional land is no longer available and pressure on the existing rice land from urbanization and other nonagricultural uses is growing rapidly. For example, China’s rice area has declined by more than 5 million ha (15%) in the past three decades and this downtrend may continue. Although a similar downtrend has not been evident in other rice-growing countries in the region because of government interventions, it is hard to foresee how governments can continue with such interventions in the face of rising costs, water shortages, and growing pressure from competing sectors.

The few exceptions could be countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar that were left out of the Green Revolution for varying reasons, but they could be stimulated to expand rice production by developing infrastructure and providing better market linkages.

Without the possibility of further area expansion in the future, yield growth will have to be maintained at 1.2–1.5% to about 2020 and at 1.0–1.2% annually beyond 2020 to be able to meet growing global needs and keep prices affordable. But, unfortunately, the approaches adopted that led to the success of the first Green Revolution may not be applicable now. During the first Green Revolution, many Asian countries provided incentives to farmers through subsidized inputs and assured markets for their products to expand rice production. Farmers responded by adopting input-responsive high-yielding modern varieties and bringing additional land into crop production. 

Fertilizer use in Asian countries has increased markedly in the past four decades. In China, fertilizer application per hectare in NPK equivalent increased from 38 kg in 1970 to close to 400 kg in 2009. Similarly, Vietnam witnessed a fivefold increase in fertilizer use during this period, from 46 kg in 1970 to 217 kg in 2009. Indian fertilizer use has also increased, but still remains low compared with that in China and Vietnam at 156 kg/ha. However, the variations among Indian states are very large: in Punjab and Haryana, NPK use is 200 kg/ha, while in states mostly left behind by the Green Revolution, it is much lower—50 kg in Orissa and 10 kg in Arunachal Pradesh.

Similarly, the use of groundwater for irrigation purposes has also increased in many Asian countries, most notably in India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. In India, water withdrawal for agriculture increased by more than 70% in the past three decades, and a recent study concluded that this rate of withdrawal in northwestern India is unsustainable: the water table is falling by 4 cm per year. Agricultural water withdrawal in Indonesia increased by nearly 25% between 1990 and 2000. Yield improvements in the future need to be achieved in the face of these emerging constraints such as land and water scarcity, environmental degradation, and rising input prices.

Climate change 

asia2Apart from the various constraints described above, the anticipated changes in global climate in the form of rising temperature, increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, greater frequency of extreme weather events (e.g., floods and droughts), and greater incidence of pests and diseases are likely to make things more complicated for rice production. A large share of rice production is already lost to various abiotic stresses (flood, drought, and salinity) and biotic stresses (pests and diseases). Among the abiotic stresses, drought is the strongest constraint, affecting nearly a third of the total rice area in Asia and causing significant economic losses to poor rice producers in the region. The average production loss due to drought in three regions (eastern India, northeastern Thailand, and southern China) adds up to $200 million annually. Floods regularly cause severe rice yield damage on 16 million ha of flood-prone rice in Asia. The annual loss in rice production in South Asia alone is estimated to be 4 million t. Salinity, though not as big a stress as drought and flood, still affects 10 million ha of coastal and inland areas. But, growing rice is the only option available to farmers in the saline-prone coastal regions where nothing else can be grown, and this crop is critical to the food security of these resource-poor farmers.

Crop losses are likely to be greater in the future with changing climate that will make flood, drought, and salinity problems more frequent and severe. Rising sea levels due to climate change are expected to spread the salinity problem to a wider growing area where rice is cultivated under favorable conditions now, especially in the Mekong River delta, which accounts for nearly half of Vietnam’s total rice production. Saline conditions may also spread beyond the coastal areas and deltas to some groundwater irrigation agriculture in interior regions. The excess withdrawal could increase salinity in groundwater, making it unsuitable for rice production. Similarly, drought losses could be much greater in the future, with many rainfed areas experiencing more intense and more frequent drought events.

In addition, rising temperatures will also negatively affect yield and grain quality in the future, when the temperature will become higher during the reproductive phase, particularly at flowering. In the past three decades, nighttime minimum temperature has been rising rapidly and this trend is expected to continue. It is estimated that yield will decrease by 7–10% for each 

1 °C temperature rise above the present mean temperatures at current carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. 

Apart from direct production losses because of the occurrence of extreme weather events and rising temperature, farmers in stress-prone environments also practice less intensive agriculture by applying less inputs. They receive lower yields, even in normal years. The rise in frequency of extreme weather due to climate change is likely to make these farmers even more risk-averse, causing a further decline in yield in normal years.

Projections using the IMPACT model developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggest that climate change will lower global rice production in 2050 by 12–14% relative to the 2000 level. In terms of absolute change in rice production, South Asia would be the worst affected region, with rice production projected to change from 169 million t in 2050 under the no-climate-change scenario to slightly above 100 million t under a climate-change scenario, a difference of more than 65 million t. This would result in higher prices and lower consumption, which eventually would lead to lower calorie intake and an increase in child malnutrition. Overall, the study suggests that developing countries would be worse off than developed countries for all crops, including rice.

A study of three major rice ecosystems in India (Odisha, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu) found varying impacts of climate change on rice production. In Kerala and Odisha, the decrease in yield due to rising temperature is likely to be offset by an increase in yield due to high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, but, in Tamil Nadu, where currently grown varieties show a much greater decline in yield due to the higher temperature, rice production is more vulnerable to climate change. In Thailand, rice yield is estimated to be about 18% lower by 2020 because of climate change.

In addition to these abiotic stresses, many biotic stresses, such as pest and disease incidence and weed infestation, would also be triggered by climate change. A map for Asia with bacterial leaf blight severity shows that, under current climate conditions, many parts of Asia are already adversely affected by this disease. These effects are predicted to become more severe with climate change that would bring about frequent extreme weather, water scarcity, and uneven rainfall, not just for bacterial leaf blight, but also other pests, diseases, and weed infestations.

One of the most important adaptation strategies is to develop varieties that can withstand extreme weather conditions to enable them to perform better than current modern high-yielding varieties. Thus, future efforts should be directed toward developing varieties that can withstand multiple stresses, such as drought and flood, in the same season. This is extremely important for rainfed lowland areas where the likelihood of both flood and drought occurring in the same season is expected to be higher in the future with the changing climate.

Apart from planting stress-tolerant varieties, Asian rice farmers need to modify their management practices to counter the negative effects of climate change. First and foremost, water-saving technologies such as alternate wetting and drying, land leveling, improved tillage, bund preparation, and direct seeding can make a significant difference in keeping plants standing in the face of water shortage and irregular rainfall. Similarly, farmers should be educated on pest dynamics and the benefits of diverse ecosystems to keep pests at a distance in order to minimize pesticide overuse. This cannot happen without the active participation of government agencies that can make policy reforms to prevent excessive use of pesticides.

Market distortions 

Historically, rice production in Asia has been subjected to extensive market distortions because of its strategic and political importance. For decades, governments in the major rice-growing countries in the region have attempted to minimize the market risk faced by farmers through various policy measures such as subsidized inputs (fertilizer, seed, fuel, pesticide, machinery, etc.) and a guaranteed price for paddy. The goal was to support farm income and at the same time keep rice affordable for millions of urban poor. To make domestic programs work, most Asian countries have tried to insulate the domestic market from global uncertainty through a slew of trade measures, including state trading, export bans, import bans, import tariffs, export quotas, and others. However, since the rice price crisis in 2007, countries have renewed their efforts to expand rice production by raising support prices at a much faster rate than in the past. For example, in India, the minimum support price (the price at which the government purchases crops from the farmers) for rice increased by 75% between 2007 and 2011, whereas it took from 1994 to 2006 for the minimum support price to increase by a similar proportion. 

The global rice market is small—only 6.9% of production in 2009—and, in most Asian markets, trade is an afterthought when domestic need and an adequate buffer stock are achieved. However, the volume of global rice trade increased by 150% between 1990 and 2010 after remaining stagnant for three decades, on the back of trade liberalization by many countries in the late 1980s and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994.

The recent rice price crisis in 2007 has forced many rice-growing countries to take measures to achieve food security through self-sufficiency and move away from their dependence on foreign rice, a trend that will depress rice trade in the future. Exporters such as Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam would cut back on their production to reduce the exportable surplus and use their land for planting other profitable crops. A smaller market will lead to greater price volatility, with a rapid rise in rice prices in years of low production and vice versa. This will particularly affect the food security of poor countries that cannot afford to buy rice at higher prices from the international market.

Toward a food-secure Asia

asia3Rice continues to remain a political commodity in Asia. Countries in the region are still extremely concerned about rice food security and treat it very differently from other food commodities. Despite the economic boom in the region in the past three decades and the rise in income and prosperity, rice consumption remains strong across countries with some diversification away from rice in a few countries. Overall, rice consumption in Asia is projected to rise in the next two decades even with declining population growth and increasing food diversification in some Asian countries.

The future growth of rice supplies, however, seems to be on shaky ground, with several emerging uncertainties, including a possible rice area decline, a further slowdown in productivity growth, and climate change. Most experts predict that the area under rice in Asia is likely to fall because of population pressure, water shortage, and competition from other crops. In addition, the ongoing structural transformation of Asian agriculture with aging farmers and out-migration of rural youth may also influence rice farming. Ultimately, the onus falls on policymakers to adequately fund agricultural research and on scientists to develop technologies that are climate-proof and that enable farmers to grow more with less inputs and a smaller environmental footprint.

If you want to learn more, please read the Rice Almanac. You can purchase it on Kindle or download for free as a PDF.

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